Advantages-Disadvantages of hiring a tour guide in China
Travel in China is notoriously difficult especially as Chinese characters are indecipherable for most visitors. Tour guides offer their services at most sites, at a price. When is this money well spent? What are the potential pitfalls?
What makes a good tour guide?
A good tour guide will know interesting information about the site you are visiting and will be able to communicate that to you (whoever many that is) in a clear and concise way. There should be no irrelevant/uninteresting numbers, no repitition and everything should be heard by the whole group. Unfortunately, many sites in China are noisy places and the last asect is very difficult to achieve without some repitition.
A good tour guide will be honest and reliable. Punctuality is one aspect of reliability.The tour guide should always be waiting for the customers, never the other way around. An honest guide will not try to make money from other sources - especially undeclared commissions. Unfortuntely the domestic tour system is riddled with commissions and many tour guides simply expect to make extra money by this means. That can mean unplanned shopping excursions wasting your valuable time.
A great tour guide will also be a character; someone who adds to your experience simply because they are pleasant, hospitable, zany ... whatever it is that makes them a real person. Each great guide is different. Only the poor ones tend to seem the same.
What are the advantages of hiring a tour guide?
A tour guide should be able to keep you away from any serious dangers and annoyances. If something untoward does happen (and an accident can happen whatever precautions are taken) they will know the procedures to get you help quickly. In most cases this may be simply finding a local doctor or reporting a loss - but these things could otherwise consume a lot of time and cause considerable grief.
A guide should also be able to answer your questions, whether they be related to the site you are visiting or to some other issue about your travels. They will have contacts that can help with more complicated issues or should at least be able to point you in the direction of a solution.
You should find that having a tour guide in charge of your arrangements means that things run more efficiently. You should not have to wait around queuing as much and any unnecessary travl should have been eliminated by good planning.
Certainly you will get more information from having a tour guide with you. Even the poorest guide will add more than you can get from books. Interaction is the key; as long as your guide speaks some English you will be able to ask for clarification - something a book/video cannot do.
... and the disadvantages
A tour guide adds expense to your trip. In China that is unlikely to be a huge amount even if you have guided services every day.
Guides do tend to have their own agendas, and any guide that is limited to the same sight will find short cuts and commission opportunities that you will find hard to resist. You can limit the damage here by talking to your guide at the outset (and the travel service before that if you can) to establish what you will and will not accept. Some issues may otherwise simply be misunderstandings.
If you are the independent type then you will probably regret a loss of some element of discovery. It is always nice to find things for yourself and to feel that you have done something that others have not done. A truly great guide may be able to give you the impression that you have discovered things for yourself, but that would be a rare occurrence anywhere.
How to find a good tour guide?
If you use a reputable travel service to make your arrangements then you should find that their tour guides are at least good, maybe even great. A tour guide who works regularly for the same travel service will have to follow their rules. Too many complaints risks losing a good reputation (or worse, acquiring a bad one) and no agency wants that.
That doesn't solve the issue, it just shifts it to a different level. How to find a reputable travel service. The internet is an excellent tool here. Do a bit of research and find some potential agencies. Then search for these in forums dealing with your intended destination. Read any feedback is there.
It is easy for one disgruntled customer to have a disproportionate say so do consider what they are complaining about and any responses/replies posted by others about the same agency before deciding whether there is sufficient justification for you to forego their services. It may be that what you read actually indicates a service that you might appreciate. 'The guide was too slow' might indicate one that would allow you to see what you want rather than hurry you to the shops at the end.
If you are spending several days in one place then you can book only the first activity with the one guide until you are satisfied that you are happy with them and want to book more. Many people do prefer to have the same guide each day though - perhaps better the devil you know.
Good guides deserve a tip. Great guides deserve to be recommended through forums etc. After all, if you took such advice before your trip then you should repay that for the travellers that follow as well as for the people that made your trip special. Travellers tend to be a healthy community looking out for each other. That's great in these times when we hear so much that is negative about society and societies.
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